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KŪYA (903972), also called Kōya, a charismatic Japanese monk who devoted himself to popularizing the Nembutsu (Chin., Nianfo), the oral invocation of Amida Buddha. Kūya's origins are unknown, but some sources claim that he may have been a grandson of Emperor Ninmyō (810850) or a son of Emperor Daigo (885930). In his youth, as an itinerant lay priest (ubasoku ), Kūya traveled in rural areas, directing and assisting in the repair of roads and bridges, improving wells and dikes, and supervising burials. In these activities he closely resembled Gyōgi (or Gyōki, 668749), a revered monk of the Nara period.

In 924, Kūya formally entered the priesthood at the Kokubunji in Owari Province (modern Aichi Prefecture). He later spent periods of devotion and study at Mineaidera in Harima Province (modern Hyōgo Prefecture), at Yushima on the island of Shikoku, and perhaps in the far northern provinces as well. But beginning in about 938, his public demonstrations of the Nembutsu in the markets of Heiankyō, the capital city (modern Kyoto), began to attract a large following among the common people. He soon became known as ichi no hijiri ("the holy man of the markets") and Amida hijiri ("the holy man of Amida").

In 948 he received full ordination at Enryakuji, the headquarters of the Tendai school, and took the priestly name Kōshō. When an epidemic swept Heiankyō in 951, Kūya undertook several projects designed to ease the sufferings of the people, including the carving of images of the eleven-headed Kannon and other benevolent deities, the copying of the Daihannyakyō (Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra ) in gold letters, and the founding of a temple, originally named Saikōji, and now called Rokuharamitsuji. The temple, near Higashiyama in Kyoto, remains closely associated with Kūya, and it was also the site of his death, at age sixty-nine, in 972.

Kūya's Nembutsu, a chant accompanied by dancing to the beat of a small cymbal or drum, was probably an adaptation of shamanic practices. He also praised Amida and the Nembutsu in simple verses that were posted in the marketplace. Before Kūya, the Nembutsu was used as a magical charm, at funerals, and in the intense meditations of Tendai monks. Kūya was the first to prescribe it as a simple expression of faith to be used by the uneducated and the poor, and he is even said to have taught it to prostitutes and criminals. He thus contributed to the Heian-period developments that carried Buddhism beyond the confines of court and monastery and prefigured the founders of the Pure Land (Jōdo) schools that emerged in the Kamakura period (twelfth and thirteenth centuries), advocating exclusive devotion to the Nembutsu and appealing to persons from all social strata.

Like Gyōgi and the Kamakura innovators, Kūya functioned on the periphery of the ecclesiastical establishment while maintaining ties with influential, aristocratic patrons, and he was thus free to convey his teachings to a diverse audience. There are many legends about his deeds, and the wooden image of him enshrined at Rokuharamitsuji (done in the Kamakura period) emphasizes his hijiri character: he is clad as an ascetic and carries his cymbal and a staff topped with antlers; he leans forward as if to begin his dance, and from his mouth issue six tiny images of Amida Buddha, representing the six characters of the written Nembutsu.

See Also

Gyōgi; Nianfo.


The most reliable account of Kūya's life and career is a memorial biography, Kūya rui, written in 972 (the year of his death) by Minamoto Tamenori. The biography in Yoshishige Yasutane's Nihon ōjō gokuraku ki (c. 986) and most other traditional versions are closely based on Tamenori's. These and other variants are reproduced in and were the basis for the first comprehensive modern study in Japanese, Hori Ichirō's Kūya (Tokyo, 1963), no. 106 of "Jimbutsu sōsho." For a more recent study, see Ishii Yoshinaga, Kūya shōnin no kenkyū: sono gyōgō to shisō (Kyoto, 2002).

In Hori's English works, Kūya is discussed as one of several similar Heian period figures; see "On the Concept of Hijiri (Holy-Man)," Numen 5 (April 1958): 128160 and (September 1958): 199232; and Folk Religion in Japan, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller (Chicago, 1968), pp. 107ff. See also Yuishin Itō, "Kūya," in Yūsen Kashiwahara and Kōyū Sonoda, eds., Shapers of Japanese Buddhism (Tokyo, 1994), pp. 5262.

Edward Kamens (1987 and 2005)

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